A belt buckle from his cousin’s Army Airborne uniform is what helped launch Bob McDonald’s service career in the “Screaming Eagles,” the 101st Airborne, and propelled him into becoming an avid collector of military paraphernalia for life.
“My cousin was in the 187th Regimental Combat Team in Korea. He made two combat jumps–one in North Korea and the other in the South. He gave me his belt buckle when he returned from the war in 1953,” McDonald recalled.
McDonald finished his junior year in high school but decided it would be more interesting to join the paratroopers when a bunch of high school buddies signed up for the service. McDonald went to basic at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., from there he was assigned to the aviation mechanic’s school at Fort Eustis, Va. He wound up at Fort Campbell, Ky. with the 101st after getting out of mechanic’s school.
“I was a little guy. I only weighed 117 pounds when I tired to sign up for the Airborne. I found out you had to be 120 pounds to get in jump school,” he recalled 50-years later. “On my third try there was a big bunch of bananas and ice-cream bars. I ate bananas and ice-cream all the way to Chicago before I took the physical.
“Going through the physical we carried our stuff in a bag around our neck. I put some lead fishing weights in the bag before I got on the scales,” McDonald said with a grin. “I weighed exactly 120 pounds, enough to get into the Airborne.
“When we got to jump school at Fort Campbell all we did was double time every where we went. Jump school was rough, but it was very interesting, too. When we started out we had 400 guys, but fewer than 200 graduated.
“Every morning we jogged up to ‘Quitter’s Row’ and did our thing. Anyone who quit jump school the day before wound up standing on ‘Quitter’s Row.’ The rest of us, who were still in school, doubled-timed past them with our eyes averted as a humiliation.
“Jump School consisted of two weeks ground training and a week of jumps,” McDonald said. “Jump Day was the big day. Two sticks of 20 troopers climbed aboard a C-130 cargo plane and were taken up to 1,250 for our first jump.
“After you stood up and hooked up they checked your equipment. You walked to the door and stood there for a second or two, it seemed like forever, until the jump master tapped you on the shoulder and you jumped.
“The first jump was the best jump of all. You didn’t know what to expect. Because you were going out the door with a few seconds between jumps you weren’t close to anybody coming down. All you heard was the wind going through your parachute. It was a wonderful experience.
“We made our first jump at the ‘Yamato Drop,’ just outside the base. The next day we had two jumps. On the second jump I hit the ground and jammed my leg. It hurt like crazy. I went hobbling back to the pick-up spot with my parachute on my back.
“When I got close to anyone who could see me I sucked it up. I said to myself,’I wasn’t going to the infirmary and have to start Jump School all over again.’ That afternoon we had to make a second jump. I sucked it up some more and made it. This time I made sure I favored my injured left leg and turned to my right when I landed.
“During the night I put something on my leg and it improved. We had two more jumps the next day I made them without any problem. I got through all five jumps and graduated from Jump School.
After Jump School he spent much of his time at Fort Campbell working on Huey helicopter engines as an aviation engine mechanic. He took part in a big air lift involving three divisions.
“We got to go to Puerto Rico for two weeks when MATS (Military Air Transport Command) showed the brass they could move three full divisions anywhere in the world by air,” he said. “They moved the 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg, the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kan. and the 101st Airborne from Fort Campbell.
“They flew all three divisions to Roosevelt Rhodes, Puerto Rico outside San Juan. We spent a couple of weeks in a Navy base there,” McDonald said. “We brought our helicopters down to Puerto Rico aboard C-124 transports. We removed their rotor blades and stored them inside the transport.”
What he remembers most about the trip to Puerto Rico, they got to go to the beach on post every day while they were there. It was a two-weeks pleasure trip for the unit, something different.
When they returned to Fort Campbell, McDonald got a break.
“One day the first sergeant came in the engine-room and asked if any of us could type. I told him I’d done a little typing in high school. He said, ‘Come with me.’
“The company clerk was going on vacation for two weeks and I was to fill in for him. One of my jobs, in addition to typing, was driving the company commander around in his Jeep. When the clerk returned from vacation they made me permanent Jeep driver.”
He spent the next year or so tooling around base behind the wheel of the company commander’s Jeep until his three years in the service were up and he was discharged.
For most of the next 30 years McDonald worked for a couple of Chicago firms as a draftsman. He drafted drawings for electrical and medical equipment.
Over the years he has become an avid military memorabilia collector with garages and local museums full of more than 7,000 pieces he has collected. The first five years McDonald displayed some of his pieces at Burnt Store Marina. Then the late Clyde Pryer asked him to help with the displays at the Military Heritage & Aviation Museum that opened its doors in 2000 at Fisherman’s Village Shopping Center in Punta Gorda, Fla.
More recently he has become the founding president of the Museum of Military Memorabilia in Naples, Fla. The museum is located in the terminal at the Naples Municipal Airport. It’s free and open to the public.
All of the items on display in this museum have been donated by volunteers like McDonald. They keep it operating and supplied with all kinds of military stuff from wars as far back as the American Civil War. He plans to donate his entire collection to this museum.
In 1996 he and his wife, Helen, moved to Burnt Store Lakes, some 10 miles south of Punta Gorda.
“One thing Jump School did for me, it made me do things I wouldn’t normally have done because they were too hard. I think it made you who you were later in life,” McDonald said.
Name: Robert Dodge McDonald
D.O.B: 18 March 1941
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 8 July 1959
Discharged: 7 July 1965
Unit: 101st Airborne
Commendations: Parachutist Badge, Expert Badge (Carbine), Sharpshooter Badge (Rifle)
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, June 10, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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